When Elizabeth Manley opened the door and saw her mother for the first time in weeks, her mother collapsed on her knees and began to cry.
Since moving to the United States to pursue her dreams of figure skating and Olympic gold, Manley had become a pale ghost of the robust athlete she had once been — she’d lost all her hair, gained 40 pounds and had almost completely stopped talking.
“I wanted to wear the pretty dresses and the pretty makeup, but unfortunately sports don’t always come with the pretty stuff,” she told a packed crowd at the University of Ottawa on Monday, 30 years after being diagnosed with clinical depression.
As part of brain health awareness week, a series of lectures put on by the University of Ottawa’s Brain and Mind Research Institute, Manley and two other Canadian athletes shared their struggles and triumphs with mental illness, in hopes of reducing its stigma.
Manley’s health issues were in the media spotlight during her first bid for an Olympic medal in Sarajevo in 1984, and she recalls how the stigma of mental health haunted her from competition to competition.
“I was an athlete, I was a tough girl, I was Canada’s queen,” she said, “and I was scared.”
After seeing Terry Orlick, a sports psychologist from the U of O, she said, she discovered that her problems had very little to do with figure skating, and everything to do with how she felt about herself.
“I wasn’t just a robot, just a skater … I was just a person,” she said.
Although media reports continued to focus on her mental health issues, and her slim chances of winning a medal, Manley went to the 1988 Calgary Olympics prepared to face her naysayers.
“And this is what happened,” she told the crowd at the U of O, beaming as she pulled out her silver medal.
“That was the night that I proved that you can still live a full life and suffer from depression.”
Although Manley’s struggles with mental illness were very public, two-time Stanley Cup winner Stéphane Richer kept his inner turmoil a secret for many years.
Drafted onto the Montreal Canadiens at just 18, he had overnight fame and fortune.
“Life is pretty easy … women, money … life is perfect,” he recalled. “But I was dying inside.”
He said that during his darkest moments, the money, women and glory didn’t matter. All he wanted was to be home with his family and be able to talk openly about his depression. But he struggled in silence.
“In the hockey business you’re tall, you’re a big guy, and you make money. You don’t complain,” he said.
Just four days after winning the Stanley Cup for the second time, Richer tried to kill himself. Eventually, Richer said, he learned how to cope with his mental illness, although he admitted to the crowd of doctors on Monday that he is the “worst patient” and hates therapy.
Now, he said, it’s not his money or his hockey awards that give him a sense of satisfaction. It’s sharing his story.
That mission is shared by Shelley McKay, a former member of the Canadian national women’s cycling team who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Growing up in an abusive household, she said, she blamed herself from a young age for her family’s violence and that she kept that feeling with her as an adult, as she herself became involved in an abusive relationship.
“It was never enough. I had to prove to myself that I was worthy of love,” she said, recalling how focusing on team sports and success helped her mask her gnawing self-hatred.
Today, she works as an advocate for youth with mental-health issues, and emphasizes the importance of reaching children at risk early on, so that they can learn from a young age how to quiet the voice in their heads that tells them they’re not enough.
“The mind is bloody powerful,” she said. “But when you’re living with a mental illness you don’t trust its power.”